What do you know about art?

It’s hard not to like a scientific paper that kicks off by quoting from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s seminal 1810 book Zur Farbenlehre – translated into English in 1840 as Theory of Colours.

Goethe’s book considers how colour is perceived, a matter of central importance to a joint German/Austrian team’s new study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

They quote Goethe thus: “The colours on the plus side are yellow, red-yellow (orange), yellow-red (minium, cinnabar). The feelings they excite are quick, lively, aspiring.”

Goethe promotes the idea that colour is central to art – “subservient to the highest aesthetical ends”. 

The research team considered the idea that simple visual elements – such as colours and lines – have had specific, universal associations (for example, red being a “warm” colour) for such a long time that they appear to be intuitive.

Such associations have formed a basis for the description of artworks since the 18th century and are still fundamental to discourses on art today, they contend in the paper.

“Art historians might describe a painting where red is dominant as ‘warm’, ‘aggressive’, or ‘lively’, with the tacit assumption that beholders would universally associate the works’ certain key forms with specific qualities, or ‘aesthetic effects’.”

“However, is this actually the case? Do we actually share similar responses to the same line or colour?”

The researchers tested whether, and to what extent, this assumption of sharing of perceived qualities (universality) is justified. 

They exposed study participants to both abstract artworks and single elements – lines and colours – extracted from the artworks and asked participants to rate their response on 14 “aesthetic effect” scales derived from art, literature and empirical aesthetics. 

They examined which of the 14 aesthetic effects prompted agreement, and also investigated the influence of art expertise, by comparing responses from art historians with those from lay people.

In news sure to thrill art snobs across the globe, the team found that we really don’t have universal associations with colours or lines. It seems we all just experience art in our own way.

Of the 14 aesthetic effects, the study participants only agreed on three – “warm-cold”, “heavy-light”, and “happy-sad”. The researchers found that art expertise did not play a significant role in how the answers were spread, and were especially low on empirical aesthetics such as a “like-dislike” scale.

According to the study authors, these results challenge the practice of interpreting artworks based on their aesthetic effects: “these effects may not be as universal as previously thought”.

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